The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) has been responsible for determining just how many assets a family owns before letting them apply for food stamps. As it turns out, the fiscal cap on how many assets a family can have before being disqualified for federal food aid hasn't been adjusted in more than 24 years, according to one official with DHW.
Tom Shanahan, spokesman for the department, upon the request of IdahoReporter.com, checked with several employees within his agency on the history of the $2,000 limit, known as the asset test. Shanahan said that Food Stamp Act of 1964, which, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "authorized a food stamp program to permit low income households to receive 'a greater share of the Nation's food abundance,'" gave states tasked with regulating food stamps the ability to apply income level tests on those who apply for public assistance. Shanahan remains unsure exactly when Idaho implemented its asset test, but did confirm with federal officials that the test has been in place since at least 1986 at the same $2,000 level.
The limit hasn't been completely free of tweaks or alterations, however. In 2007, DHW changed the rule to exempt one car per family from the test. Prior to that, each car was evaluated by department officials, but only vehicles valued at more than $4,650 were counted toward the test, but not at their full dollar amount. If a car is valued at more than $4,650, only the dollars over that amount would count toward the cap.
In June 2009, Gov. Butch Otter, upon the urging of DHW officials, suspended the asset test amid a large economic downturn. Otter suspended the test because he believed that the slumping marketplace would make it nearly impossible for cash-strapped families to turn hard assets, like cars, ATVs, camping trailers, and other things, into cash for food. Otter's suspension was approved by lawmakers on the House and Senate Health and Welfare Committees during 2010's legislative session, but not without spirited debate. Two lawmakers on the House side, Rep. Steve Thayn, R-Emmett, and Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, argued that the test shouldn't be lifted, but rather the state should do all it could to teach citizens to stretch their food dollars and become self-reliant. The duo eventually and reluctantly voted to support the temporary removal of that test because they were told it was just that - temporary. Rosie Andueza, food program administrator with DHW, told lawmakers the asset test would begin again at the end of May 2010.
At the end of May 2010, DHW officials decided to suspend the asset test for an additional year, barring disapproval by lawmakers in the 2011 legislative session. Leo Morales, a community organizer with the Idaho Community Action Network, hailed the move, but said that legislators should look at removing the test altogether to allow more families to become food secure. Thayn ripped DHW for the move, and reiterated that the state should be teaching self-reliance, and not a dependence on the government. Though both men differed wildly on their opinions of the additional year for the suspension of the test, both told IdahoReporter.com in separate interviews that they would be amenable to seeing the asset test adjusted and increased.
One common way legislators could use to adjust the cap it to increase it according to inflation of the last 24 years, and then index it to the cost of living of Idahoans. If lawmakers decide to go that route, the asset cap would see a rise of almost $2,000. When the amount of the original cap from 1986 is adjusted for inflation, it jumps to $3,861.54.
Shanahan said that he isn't sure what the future will bring for the food stamp program, but guessed that the asset test would be reintroduced sooner rather than later. "We assume that when the economy recovers and unemployment declines, Idaho will look at reintroducing an asset limit for food assistance. What that will look like will depend on legislators and the governor ... inflation adjustment is one idea that will surely be discussed," he said.